LONDON — The Americans grabbed hands and backed up, eager to get a better view of the scoreboard.
There really was no need. That Olympic gold medal was in the bag the minute they took the floor.
The Americans lived up to their considerable hype and then some Tuesday night, routing silver medalist Russia and everybody else on their way to their first Olympic title in women’s gymnastics since 1996. Their score of 183.596 was a whopping five points ahead of Russia and made their final event, floor exercise, more like a coronation. Romania won the bronze.
With the Russians on the sidelines crying, the Americans stood at the center of the floor, clapping, cheering and basking in a winner’s glow. When the score for captain Aly Raisman flashed, the Americans screamed and a chant of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” rang out around the arena. The women held up their index fingers for the cameras — just in case anyone had a doubt.
“We knew we could do it. We just had to pull out all the stops,” Raisman said.
The Americans had come into the last two Olympics as world champions, only to leave without a gold. But this team is the strongest, top to bottom, the USA has ever had and the rest of the world never stood a chance. After the U.S. opened with a barrage of booming vaults, everyone else was playing for silver.
“This is the best team all-time,” said U.S. coach John Geddert, who is also Jordyn Wieber’s personal coach. “Others might disagree. The ’96 team might disagree. But this is the best team. Difficulty-wise, consistency wise, this is USA’s finest.”
Now all they have to do is find themselves a catchy nickname, like “The Magnificent Seven” from 1996. Some have suggested “The Fab Five,” but that belongs to Michigan basketball’s Chris Webber, Jalen Rose and Co. Others have tossed out “The Fierce Five.”
Try this: “Best Gymnastics Team in the World. By A Lot.”
“I must recognize United States lead this competition from beginning to end,” Romanian coach Octavian Belu said. “Other countries just tried to do something to get on the podium.”
Some teenagers might find that pressure tough to bear, but the Americans reveled in it. When they saw the Russians and Romanians peeking in the doorway during training sessions, they cranked up the oomph in their routines, the better to intimidate. Even the shock of world champion Jordyn Wieber failing to qualify for Thursday’s all-around final couldn’t distract them.
When the gold was on the line, the Americans were simply spectacular.
“There were a lot of rumors that we couldn’t do this because we won worlds, and there were a lot of doubts,” McKayla Maroney said. “We went out there to prove something and that’s what we did.”
The Americans knew Russia would be its biggest foe, especially with the return of 2010 world champion Aliya Mustafina, who missed last year’s world championships after blowing out her left ACL. But they essentially won the gold medal with their first event, vault, putting on a fireworks show right in front of their rivals.
All of the Americans do Amanars, one of the toughest vaults in the world — a roundoff onto the takeoff board, back handspring onto the table and 2.5 twisting somersaults before landing. It’s got a start value — the measure of difficulty — of 6.5, a whopping 0.7 above the vault most other gymnasts do, and they ripped off one massive one after another.
Wieber went first and did perhaps the best one she’s ever done, getting great height in the air, her legs locked together. When her feet slammed into the mat on landing, she threw up her arms and smiled broadly. Anyone wondering how she was coping with the devastation she felt Sunday had their answer.
“We said, ‘Turn the page.’ The competition is not over. We have the team finals. We have to get a medal for all of us,'” national team coordinator Martha Karolyi said.
Gabby Douglas went next and her vault was even better. And then came world vault champ Maroney, who may as well claim her Olympic vault gold now. She got so much height on her Amanar it’s a wonder she didn’t bump her head on the overhead camera. She hit the mat with tremendous force yet didn’t so much as wiggle, triumphantly thrusting her arms in the air as she saluted the judges.
The Americans strutted out of the event with a 1.7-point lead, and never looked back.
“Starting out on vault was really good for us,” Wieber said. “Just kind of kickstarting the competition like that was really good for us, and we just carried everything through to the next three events.”
Russia erased all but four-tenths of the deficit on uneven bars, where Viktoria Komova and Mustafina defy the laws of gravity, but the team began falling apart on balance beam. Mustafina swayed and wobbled so badly on the landing of a leap it’s a wonder she didn’t fall off; Komova almost stepped on the judges on her dismount.
“We did everything we could,” Komova said.
The Americans, meanwhile, made the 4-inch slab that stands 4 feet in the air look like child’s play. Kyla Ross, the only American who wasn’t on that world team last year (she was too young), performed like a ballerina with her long legs and gorgeous lines. She landed one somersault with her left foot curled over the edge of the beam, yet never flinched.
Douglas has struggled on balance beam all summer, with a fall the second day of the U.S. championships costing her the title. But she has been clutch in London, delivering the highest score in qualifying and again Tuesday night.
She whipped off a series of backflips as if she was still on the ground, a look of intense concentration on her face. She had a small balance check on a leap, swaying slightly and waving her arms to steady herself, but it was a minor error. Her score of 15.233 would all but seal the gold for the Americans, and they strutted over to floor exercise eager to close out the night with a big show.
The Americans turned the O2 in their own private party, the Russians struggled — Anastasia Grishina stumbled on one pass and botched another when she all but came to a dead stop in the middle of the floor; world champion Ksenia Afanaseva landed her dismount on her knees.
Wieber’s bright smile grew as she danced and tumbled, the crowd clapping in time to her techno pop music. Fans the world over will be humming the “Doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo” from the start of Douglas’ music and little girls are sure to be bouncing in their backyards trying to get as high as she does on her leaps. Raisman closed it out with a rollicking routine to “Hava Nagila,” soaring high on her tumbling passes and sticking a landing with a cement-like firmness.
Coach Mihai Brestyan was jumping up and down as Raisman finished, the tears already starting to fall. But as she fell into her teammates arms, the tears turned to shrieks of joy.
“It’s crazy to think the U.S. hasn’t won a gold medal since ’96,” Douglas said. “I was feeling so confident, though. You have to feel confident and believe in yourself and trust. If you can do that, everything’s going to be OK.”